Catastrophic Thinking Can Be So Useful, and Can Run Amok
I know that catastrophic thinking – a sneeze means a cold means missing work means losing my job means financial disaster, all in less than three seconds – is my reactive habit of choice when faced with a wobble or a wallop. I know why getting good at catastrophic thinking was useful in my family of origin. I’ve worked very hard to catch and challenge that pattern before I fall too deeply into the rabbit hole of seeing disaster around every corner. I’ve taught clients and clinicians skillful strategies to catch and undo this pattern of thinking. And a flat tire on a recent vacation in a foreign country taught me a humble lesson, yet again, in learning to walk my talk.
I was driving a rental car on a narrow, winding, single track road in a remote section of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Trying to avoid an oncoming car, I steered too far off the road, hit a pothole, and blew out the left front tire. I pulled off the road safely, was in a beautiful spot in the rugged Trotternish Peninsula, it wasn’t raining, I had snacks, I could do my physical therapy exercises while waiting for the mechanic to come and replace the tire.
The road assistance folks and the mechanic both reassured me it probably was just a flat tire. But my mind went into its catastrophic pattern – I’ve bent the axle, the car will be irreparable, I’ve just thrown my entire two-week vacation into the toilet. And my wiser self wrestled with the messages of an earlier version of myself the entire 90 minutes it took for the mechanic to arrive, and the five minutes it took him to replace the tire.
I was so relieved that it was just a flat tire and spent the rest of the day happily driving up and down the Peninsula, reveling and rejoicing in the stunning beauty of the mountains, waterfalls, lakes and ocean cliffs. I thought my mind was fully at ease again.
But then, every close call on another narrow winding road would trigger the fear again that I would do something to jeopardize the entire vacation. I’m not afraid of flying; I’m not afraid of going to the dentist. I’m usually not afraid of driving. But the wrestling match continued. This moment is absolutely fine…but something terrible could happen in the next! The recurrent anxiety dis-regulated my nervous system enough that I couldn’t easily “think” my way out of the same ole, same ole reactivity.
It took a lot of remembering what I teach and practicing the practices that work. Sometimes pausing and taking in the wonder of eating dinner while gazing at mountains, lakes, and pastures full of sheep. Sometimes the skillful distraction, when I sensed the edge of the rabbit hole again, I would hear myself say, “Linda, focus on something spectacular!” Sometimes breathing in compassion, breathing out anxiety. If I couldn’t find the compassion for myself, I would send loving kindness wishes to people I care deeply about. I learned years ago that a good night’s sleep absorbs the excess cortisol in the body released by stress, so I made sure I slept 8-9 hours every night. (A miracle.)
Gradually there were longer and longer stretches where I could simply REST: relax and enter into safety and trust. I still had white-knuckle moments when I’m driving 25mph and the locals are whizzing by me at 60mph. But I could name the demon I was wrestling with and felt no shame, only disappointment, that it could still be so hard after all these years to do what I knew to do, and be who I knew to be.
The leaning into catastrophic thinking never entirely went away. I worried that my phone would run out of charge while I was navigating toward the airport, I would get hopelessly lost on the motorway and miss my plane, etc. But it tamed down enough that I could enjoy the friendly people and the complexity of another nation’s history and culture. And the humble knowing that we learn lessons from coping with life’s adversities, again and again.